Hedwig and the Angry Inch
All Things Considered (NPR); 04-06-1998
Hosted by Frank Browning, Robert Siegel, Noah Adams
Robert Siegel, Host:
This is All Things Considered.
I'm Robert Siegel.
Noah Adams, Host:
And I'm Noah Adams.
If you wanted to make your fortune in New York theater, you probably would not begin with a difficult text by a Greek philosopher.
And if you did, chances are you would not make your lead character a transsexual cross between David Bowie and Farrah Fawcett -- a character raised on the wrong side of the Berlin wall.
But that's just what two young New York performers have done, and as Frank Browning reports, they have a hit on their hands.
Frank Browning, Reporter:
You start with the theater -- a moderately refurbished ballroom at the Riverview Hotel, where Herman Melville once clerked and the survivors of the Titanic crew were briefly sheltered.
SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD IN THEATER
Inside, you find a bar and a couple hundred seats spread before a grungy stage and a grody collection of '70s-style punk rockers tuning up. The lights fade. An electric guitar whines.
SOUNDBITE OF ROCK VERSION OF "STARS AND STRIPES FOREVER" AND CROWD APPLAUDING
And a figure shrouded in an acid-washed hooded cape marches down the center aisle in long steady strides up onto the stage, turns, and then spreads open a great wing-span of stars and stripes.
In a wig nearly as wide as her shoulders, her eyes hidden behind glamour shades, this is Hedwig.
Don't you know me? I'm the new (unintelligible) one. Try and tear me down.
Hedwig stands before the band, called "The Angrv Inch" as Yitzak, the last Jewish drag queen of Bosnia, tells us about a person in a world divided; about how the Berlin wall became the most hated symbol of the Cold War.
we thought the wall would stand forever. But now that it' s gone, we don't know who we are anymore. Ladies and gentlemen, Hedwig is (unintelligible) that wall -- standing before you in the divide between East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman, top and bottom.
Hedwig -- or head-wig -- was written by actor John Cameron Mitchell, who starred in "The Secret Garden" on Broadway and the TV series "Party Girl." Stephen Trask, a punk-rock musician, composer, and some-time dancer, wrote the music and Iyrics.
Mitchell had been musing over the ideas in Plato's "Symposium" and the philosopher's account of the origins of love, where the first humans were round, had four legs, four arms, and two heads, and came in three sexes. Then, because they were ripped in two, each was left longing for the other half.
John Cameron Mitchell, Playwright, Actor:
We take that central metaphor of people seeking their other halves, and 1 just rifled on it; you know, the Berlin Wall, east-west, man-woman, looking at all the dualities. I kind of let things fall as they did. I mean, I -- that was the rock and roll side.
It was up to Stephen Trask to render Mitchell's ideas and drag sketches into a rock musical. Trask says Plato's thoughts about duality led him toward the torments of love.
Stephen Trask, Composer and Musician:
The thing that spoke to me was how it addressed a way of defining what the feeling is of having a crush or being in love, and that it' s the feeling that your body's been torn asunder and you're trying to put it back together again and it's such -- it's such a deep-felt ache.
Hedwig constantly talks about being wide open, and trying to close a wound. And that comes from the origin of love idea, too. It's like something was torn away from each one of us at a certain time. In the myth, it's their other half. It's another part of them. All of us have lost something along the way that we're trying to seek and love. And Hedwig has certainly had things torn away from her, including her primary member.
Raised in East Berlin, Hedwig had once been a pretty fair faced boy named Hansel, until he was discovered by an American Army officer, Corporal Luther Robinson. Corporal Robinson, taken with Hansel, comes to dinner bringing a wig and an application for American citizenship.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH)
He loves me, mother. He wants to marry me and get me the hell out of here. I put the wig on my head...
There's just one minor problem.
Corporal Luther Robinson:
Baby, I gotta marry you here in East Berlin. And that means a full physical examination.
Why they'd see right away...
To walk away, you gotta leave something behind.
To be free, one must give up a little part of oneself. And I know just the doctor to take it.
SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMS
The surgery is East German -- a little sloppy. And hence the show's title: The Angry Inch. Soon enough, Hedwig finds herself in Phoenix, and then one Army base after another. And then, of course, divorced -- divided again. As much as Hedwig is about divided selves, divided worlds, for lyricist Stephen Trask, it's even more about what connects gay and straight, man and woman.
I am much more interested in what makes people the same than in what makes people different. For instance, in the Jewish- German themes in this, I'm much more interested in why German nationalism and Jewish nationalism both develop at the same time in the same place, rather than seeing them as necessarily opposed to each other, but as actually coming from the same instinct. I'm much more interested in why a gay struggle for civil rights can be linked to a black struggle for civil rights, than in why they're fundamentally different; or in a common humanity between men and women, rather than what divides us biologically.
It's just such linkages that came together in the song Trask wrote to Hedwig's wig.
I had no idea where the song was going to go, and ended up with a song not just about the wig, but more about the transformative powers of dressing up. That became a centerpiece to the show -- that moment where Hedwig learns to celebrate who she is by dressing up as Hedwig, rather than hating who she is by having to dress up as Hedwig.
"On nights like this, when the world's a bit amiss, and the lights go down across the trailer park, I get down. I feel had. I feel on the verge of going mad. And then it's time to punch the clock. I put on some makeup and turn up the tape-deck and pull the wig down on my head, and suddenly I'm this -- I'm this Midwest, Midnight Checkout Queen until I head home and put myself to bed. I look back on where I'm from. I look at the woman I've become and the strangest things seem suddenly routine."
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH" )
And put the wig back on my head
Suddenly I'm Miss Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen
Until I head home and put myself to bed...
Plato and torch song, Weimar and trailer park, big wigs and broken walls -- Hedwig has been selling out at stylishly shabby hall across from the old abandoned Hudson River piers.
Mitchell and Trask reckon they'll keep the show downtown -- a big, wide open Broadway stage wouldn't be quite right. But a movie is in the works, and a CD as well.
And anyway, they say, maybe they're breaking down the walls between uptown and down.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning, in New York.